Grace Potter is well aware of the evanescence of fame and the kind of physical beauty that gets you noticed. So as the decade-in-the-making overnight success story of her band, the Nocturnals, has finally reached pop-culture critical mass, Potter is grabbing opportunity with both hands.
Despite her visual appeal, it’s not always pretty.
“I have very strong hands, like ‘Of Mice and Men’ strong,” she says, referencing John Steinbeck’s character Lenny, a mentally impaired drifter who could not control his brute strength, leaving his cherished pet rabbit dead. “I am very physical, and some people find that intimidating.”
With influences ranging from James Brown and Johnny Cash to the Kinks and Iggy Pop, Potter also finds it hard to restrain herself. Evidence will be hard to ignore onstage Saturday night at the Fillmore Miami Beach, she says.
“I do have a hunger for exertion. I feel the music in a very visceral way, it’s almost involuntary, the adrenaline just takes over,” she says. “I break a lot of strings.”
The Vermont-spawned Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (drummer Matt Burr and guitarists Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco) have been together since 2002 and trace their roots to a coffeehouse on the St. Lawrence University campus, where Potter was studying film. The band’s debut album, “Nothing but the Water,” was released in 2005, its bluesy, jam-band ethos led by Potter’s sugary growl and energetic improvisation on guitar and the Hammond B3 organ.
There followed several years of relentless, pack-your-own van touring. Rewards came slowly but steadily: a Jammy Award for “best new groove” in 2006, dates opening for the Black Crowes and Govt. Mule, and a slot on the Bonnaroo bill.
Potter can detail horror stories of falling down a flight of stairs with her Hammond B3 getting ready for a gig in Austin, or the time their van rolled over in the emptiness of Minnesota. “There was no fairy dust, no magic key. We worked really f---ing hard,” Potter says.
Flash-forward to April 2012, and there are the Nocturnals on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” ripping through the muscular rock anthem “Never Go Back,” off the band’s June release, “The Lion the Beast the Beat.” Long gone is Potter’s sunny, roots-rock fashion as she teeters confidently on black stilettos poking menacingly from a pair of leather pants, accessorized by a wicked Flying V six-string.
The album, which edged closer to a mainstream-rock sound, was critically lauded in places expected (The New York Times called it the band’s best “by far”) and not, including Glamour magazine, which hailed Potter’s “totally electric” vocals.
Potter's voice is a versatile instrument: She can channel James Brown and Iggy Pop (“It’s about the energy. They were physical, sonic and spiritual all at once.”) or slow it down on the graceful, country-tinged rock tear-jerker "Stars."
While admitting that she’s a fan of the genre and a dedicated student of the vivid storytelling of Townes Van Zandt and Gillian Welch, “Stars” does not foreshadow the ubiquitous rock-country crossover release. “I don’t see it happening anytime soon,” Potter says.
Of the evolution of her look, Potter says there are still some shows in which she goes without makeup, but she admits that after a “shrinking violet” youth, getting dolled up is fun. And it has a purpose.
“It’s called show business, not just sound business,” says Potter, who will turn 30 in June. “I’m only gonna look like this and be this age for so long.”
If an air of “sexuality” helps attract new fans, Potter says it won’t hold them. “It’s always got to come back to the songs,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s fake.”
You can expect Saturday night’s set list to include surprises. The Nocturnals have been known to pull out some random covers — a rarity such as the Beatles’ fiery “Yer Blues,” for instance — and they’ll often find ways to customize the set to the city they're in.
At a recent date in Baltimore the Nocturnals played the Ravens' theme song, the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," and they did Prince’s pop delicacy “Kiss” at the Minneapolis club where he got his start. Potter also monitors Twitter for suggestions up to the last minute before showtime.
If you drop in at @gracepotter, below her portrait you’ll find a quote from Hunter S. Thompson, the liquored-up journalist and gonzo road warrior whose richly detailed, edge-of-your-seat escapades are legend: “We'd be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end.”
Potter says her rock ‘n’ roll ride has already taken her farther than she ever expected.
“I’m proud that we’ve gone as far as we’ve gotten, especially by not following the beaten track,” she says. “I feel like I’ve almost literally run away and joined the circus.”
Photo: Lauren Dukoff
IF YOU GO
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave.
Cost: $26.50 (general admission)
Contact: 305-673-7300 or FillmoreMB.com